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Ritchie, Sir Thomas Malcolm (1894–1971)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Thomas Malcolm Ritchie (1894-1971), electrical engineer and Liberal Party president, was born on 11 June 1894 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of Thomas Ritchie, a tinsmith from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Margaret Tascar, née Henry, a tailoress. After attending Lee Street State School, Malcolm won an Arnot scholarship to the Working Men's College where he obtained a diploma in electrical and mechanical engineering.

At 21 Ritchie formed his own company, the first in Australia to manufacture heavy-duty electrical switchgear. From 1923 he organized mergers with British and American companies, expanding his activities to employ thousands of workers in four States, and helping to pioneer manufacturing in a number of areas, including general and distribution switchgear. At the Presbyterian Church, Armadale, on 22 April 1924 he married Phyllis Elizabeth Brown. In 1934 he was appointed general manager of Noyes Bros Pty Ltd, which was then moving into the supply of radio sets and accessories. Having settled in Sydney, he served as a member (1935-46) of the New South Wales Electricity Advisory Committee and, during World War II, as State business administrator of the Commonwealth Department of Munitions.

A practical man with a precise mind and efficient habits, Ritchie was below average height, beetle-browed and square-jawed, with steel-blue eyes which had an impish glint. As a leading, self-styled 'industrialist', he was often outspoken, using guest appearances around Australia and in Britain to challenge conventional wisdoms. In 1948 he argued that capital would be more effectively utilized by a 56-hour week, with workers employed in weekly shifts of 28 hours each. In 1950 he proposed that Britain should export entire factories to Australia—including the office-boys—to help preserve Australia from 'millions of South-East Asians who are anxious to occupy the country and are all out to win it'.

Ritchie's business peers acknowledged his talents by electing him to official positions with several employer organizations. By 1950 he was chairman and managing director of Noyes Bros and of Crompton Parkinson (Aust.) Pty Ltd, subsidiaries of a British electrical-engineering group. Considered by the better-bred to be 'pushy', he joined exclusive clubs in Sydney and Melbourne, and was knighted in 1951 for his war-work. He involved himself in community life through Rotary, the Boy Scouts' Association and the Fairbridge Farm Schools.

Opposed to the extremes of both the left and the right of Australian politics, Ritchie made a substantial contribution to the emergence and development of the Liberal Party of Australia. He chaired the party's provisional executive in 1945, raised funds in Sydney and Melbourne to finance the federal secretariat, persuaded a sceptical Queensland People's Party to become the Liberal Party in the northern State, and drafted the plan for the federal organization of the party. And it was Ritchie, unanimously elected the first federal president, who formally inaugurated the Liberal Party on 31 August 1945 in the Sydney Town Hall.

He had a difficult relationship with (Sir) Robert Menzies, the Liberal parliamentary leader. While Menzies believed that businessmen were not 'politics conscious', Ritchie, the self-made man, felt more comfortable among those who worked with their hands. His plans to raise 'millions' for party funds and to popularize 'big business' provoked Menzies to claim that potential supporters would turn away if they detected 'the power of money' in the party. Ritchie resented the implication that he relied on his business associates to gauge public opinion. Having worked closely with the party's branches, and in factories, he claimed to be closer to 'ordinary Australians' than Menzies and some of his parliamentary colleagues.

As federal president, Ritchie pursued two causes. He sought to involve the extra-parliamentary organization in making policy, and to create a truly national party with a 'national spirit'. Menzies helped to defeat the first objective, and the near-autonomous State divisions thwarted the second. Even so, Ritchie managed to translate vague aspirations into a working organization. Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey succeeded him as president in 1947, but Ritchie was recalled to office when Casey won a seat in the House of Representatives in the coalition's landslide victory of 1949. Ill health forced him to resign the presidency in 1951—just when his frank speaking and determination to involve the organization in policy matters were beginning to irritate the new Menzies government. Ritchie remained, however, a party trustee until 1955.

Sir Malcolm gradually withdrew from his multiple directorships and, in 1962, established a Poll Hereford stud at his property, Trelm, at Bong Bong, near Moss Vale. A keen sportsman, he continued to play golf and laid his own bowling green at Trelm where he entertained Sydney friends. He died on 22 February 1971 at his home and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him. They had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Hancock, National and Permanent? (Melb, 2000)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 Dec 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Feb 1971
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Thomas Ritchie papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Ritchie, Sir Thomas Malcolm (1894–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ritchie-sir-thomas-malcolm-11532/text20573, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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